More than any other genre, the arthouse 'cerebral film' is shackled by its conventions - the pretentious philosophical babble, the overtly quiet minimalism, the flimsy budget and production values, the shots of foliage and smoke plumes atop melancholy mountains, and the eventual box office tragedy followed by cult favouritism. It's a never-ending cycle that keeps on repeating and we've seen the circular scenario so many times. So is there any room for expansion in such a genre, that too in India where only the Khans and the mind numbingly terrible Simply South remakes command eyeballs? The outstanding Ship of Theseus answers this question as its director Anand Gandhi lobs grenades at the system and the cycle. This is not only a good looking, splendidly directed, shot and acted film, but also a hopeful snapshot of Bombay producing intelligent, challenging yet entertaining cinema on a mainstream scale instead of star studded commercialized hogwash.
The title Ship of Theseus refers to the ancient Greek paradox that questions if every part of a ship is changed over time, would the ship remain the same. The film is soaked in metaphor but rooted in everyday life thanks to Gandhi's superb realization of the paradox in an Indian setting and all the moral contradictions that follow the paradox. We follow three mildly entwined stories, one featuring a blind photographer, one that chronicles a scholarly monk, and one that contends with illegal kidney transplants. All three stories hark back to the titular theme but the film's deep thinking philobabble is gorgeously elucidated without ever becoming pretentious. In fact the film's credibility is in its simple and solid ideological arguments, echoed constantly throughout its unforgettable imagery and music. Gandhi's style is deliberate and the build-up is provocative, carefully laid out for the personal odyssey of the protagonists of the three segments to reach a powerful and moving conclusion.
The film's cast often surpasses its direction in brilliance - Aida Elkashef is extremely compelling as a blind photographer who has learned to compose images using a voice activated camera. Neeraj Kabi as the monk in particular stands out thanks to his alarmingly convincing portrayal of a man gradually falling ill. His weight slackens as the story progresses and you know we've got our own Christian Machinist Bale in our midst. Kabi's conversations with his protégé, a young lawyer who questions his guru's stubborn proclivity to his ethics are striking and very entertaining. The back and forth between the characters gets under your skin in ways that very few Indian films ever have. In all three segments the actors manage to infuse quiet moments of reflection and fear, and Ship of Theseus relies on this construction of rumination in between hope and desperation to heighten the impact.
Gandhi avoids aesthetic escapades into surrealist imagery and instead dishes out the raw streets of Bombay - it makes the film accessible to a large demographic rather than just the arthouse snobs. Most of the film's affecting moments happen on relatable territory (a hospital, a slum, a common man's house) and they are crafted well enough to influence even those who've disavowed emotion. The story's focus on physical and mental fragmentation is fully apparent early into the film. Even when the film suddenly shifts to a foreign locale there's palpable sensitivity to it. Naren Chandavarkar's music and Pankaj Kumar's fluid handheld camera haunt these characters through the chaos of blindness, dank rainy skies and gloomy corridors, sometimes holding on them for long takes that capture an entire experience in a matter of minutes.
Sure, there are a few flaws that crop up once or twice. The most apparent is Vinay Shukla who plays a fun contrarian protégé but recites some of his intellectual, philosophical lines as if reading off a teleprompter, with no passion in his delivery. When a person debates the dilemma of physical and spiritual rescue and the dissolution of hope you'd imagine they'd be extremely passionate about it. But you could say what you wish, nitpick the night away, dissect and dismantle every part of the film and rearrange it the way you want, it won't change the fact that Ship of Theseus is the work of a visionary. Anand Gandhi's debut feature clearly is a window to his journey of becoming a great filmmaker, and hopefully he won't succumb to the wet kiss of the God complex. As it is, we get far too few opportunities in India to see sharp, intelligent cinema on the big screen.
(First published in Firstpost)